Update, Thursday, Sept. 15: After a full day of negotiations, railroad companies and unions have reached a tentative agreement. Unions now need to vote for the agreement; in the meantime workers have agreed not to strike. Details around the agreement have not yet been released.
Original story published Wednesday, Sept. 14: After two years of failed negotiations, up to 125,000 railroad workers could go on strike this month in demand of better working conditions. The 12 railroad workers unions failed to come to a contract agreement that reflected their mutual desire for paid sick time, ending the rigorous attendance policy, and being able to take a vacation day without being fired.
In July, President Joe Biden created a Presidential Emergency Board to avert the strike and instead make recommendations the unions and railroads could agree on. But an overwhelming majority of the Railroad Workers Unions find the PEB to be unworthy of their support. If an agreement is not reached by Friday, Sept. 16, the Railroad Workers Union will legally be allowed to begin their strike that same day. But the railway workers at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said they would hold off on a strike until Sept. 29 to allow for more negotiations to continue with railroads. Until then, the pressure is on for the Biden administration to negotiate with the railroad and labor unions to avoid more supply chain disruptions and potentially driving up an already untenable inflation.
“I don’t think we would even be having this discussion about a strike starting if they would have attempted to address some of these issues,” said Michael Paul Lindsey, a 17-year employee of Union Pacific in Pocatello, Idaho. “But they didn’t even attempt it. Not only did they refuse to negotiate on quality of life, they doubled down on their argument that our conditions should actually become even worse. “
While the PEB did propose salary raises, Lindsey said higher salaries are not enough to make up for the amount of time spent on the road and away from families. Rail worker schedules are usually unpredictable, leading to canceled plans and sometimes waiting around the phone to get called for a job. The lack of predictability and consideration for their personal lives is at the forefront of the workers’ demands, and it is a main reason why a growing number of railroad workers have left the industry. Over the last six years, 45,000 workers have left, accounting for nearly 29% of the industry. According to the PEB, they recommend the issue go back to negotiations without any actual resolution.
“In the freight industry, our working conditions have progressively gotten worse and worse and worse for quite a few years,” Lindsey said. “The work conditions now have just become oppressive. You have to be on call, available 24/7.”
More than 700 union workers quit after BNSF, one of the largest freight railroads in North America, instituted a points-based and oppressive attendance system in February. The system was revised in May, but other railways have adopted the system, including Union Pacific. It assigns workers a set number of points, and each time a worker needs to take time off, regardless of the reason, they are deducted points. The result has been workers not being able to take days off for funerals or doctors appointments.
“We’ve been constantly getting harassed to step up 24 hours a day, getting called by the railroad all hours of the day and night to step up,” Lindsey said. “They’re calling you all night to step up. There’s guys that were called 10, 11, 12 times a night some nights to take assignments that aren’t theirs, and they gotta, you know, try to go back to sleep or just take the damn call.”
Lindsey said locomotive engineers, who sometimes make as much as $100,000 a year, are willing to take a moderate pay cut if it means they can “have a life again.” Other railroad workers make an average of $40,000-50,000 a year.
“It used to not be that way,” Lindsey said. “It used to be that the railroad paid exceptionally well for a reason—because it does horrible things to your life, so people were willing to work for that and sacrifice.”
Ron Kaminkow, a RWU organizer and a locomotive engineer with Amtrak, agrees with Lindsey and said that most engineers are opting out of the industry altogether. Kaminkow used to work freight but then switched to Amtrak so he could enjoy a more reliable schedule.
“When I left the industry, I thought, ‘I cannot do this for another 20 years,’” Kaminkow said. “The amount of time that I spent away from home, not getting paid a dime—most railroaders don’t get paid until after 16 hours that they’re away from home terminal. It’s not worth it. These are all the sacrifices that railroad workers have historically made to keep these jobs.”
If the unions strike, around 40% of the nation’s trade could be stalled with more than 7,000 trains paused. It could cost the economy up to $2 billion per day.
“Between precision scheduled railroading, the draconian increase in these horrible attendance policies, harsh discipline historically, and then the pandemic to catalyze it all, workers are saying this is untenable,” Kaminkow said.
Railroad representatives said negotiations are ongoing and a strike is not inevitable, but workers are hoping it goes through to show the severity of their demands.
“I absolutely think that our strike needs to happen,” Lindsey said. “The only alternative there is that Congress does something, forces this binding arbitration or forces a contract down our throat based on a PEB result. But they should think logically about that because if they do, then they will expedite the exodus [of workers]. This is currently happening from the industry, and instead of a strike, you’ll just have an industry that’s just perpetually out of people, and that’ll be far more devastating to the economy than just simply a labor strike.”
Republicans in Congress have already introduced legislation that would impose a new contract based on the PEB if negotiations are not successful, and Democrats said they would pass a bill to block a shutdown if necessary.